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It seems to me that it's only lately (last 15 years?) that I've seen commas after "but", "and", and "or" in reputable sources (NY Times, etc.). I'm pretty certain this was anathema many decades ago. Was there some reason for a change? When did it happen?

Or is this a recency illusion, and it's really been a practice for a long time?

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Hmm... could you give an example? I don't have a problem with a comma after a conjunction—but, as in this sentence, the comma should be there because it introduces parenthesis; otherwise it would be bad, as you say. –  Cerberus Jun 3 '11 at 4:59

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This is what I found:

Common arguments against consistent use of the serial comma:
Use of the comma is inconsistent with conventional practice.
The comma may introduce ambiguity (see examples below).
It is redundant in a simple list, because the and or the or is often meant to serve (by itself) to mark the logical separation between the final two items, unless, of course, the final two items are not truly separate items but are two parts of a compound single item

Also, from the hand out Commas:Conventional Usage

VIII. Do not use a comma between a series of only two. Be careful not to apply the comma rule to a series of only two elements. Watch out also for those situations where it looks like you have a series of three elements but it is actually a series of two noun phrases and a compound verb phrase (if this explanation sounds confusing--see the example). We brought bread and cheese and read poetry. (Sorry for the Dick-and-Jane sentence, but "cheese" and "poetry" are not really in a series. No commas for either "and" here.)

So we've established that the conventional usage is to avoid using commas. However, when did the comma started becoming used in a non-conventional way?

I found this:

...and, from being a farmer's drudge and a carrier's lad,...

This is by Dickens, in 1839

Also, in 1516, by Sir Thomas More,:

...and, after those civilities were past which are ordinary for strangers upon their first meeting, we went all to my house; and, entering into the garden...

So although most of the time there were no commas following conjunctions, there are instances when they are used, and its not just a recent thing.

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Okay, clarification: What I meant was using a comma after a conjunction without the use of any other reason, such as a prepositional phrase, as those two examples have. The type of thing I mean is this (typically, the conjunction is sentence-initial): "I went to the store. But, I forgot what I wanted to get. And, the store was closed when I got there." –  Steve Harris Jun 3 '11 at 10:46
Hmm, first example is with prepositional phrase--"from being..."; but second example is a dependent clause--"after those civilities were past...". But both are instances where commas are necessary to set off the intruding phrase/clause from the complement of the conjunction, so not instances of what I'm referring to. –  Steve Harris Jun 3 '11 at 11:13

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